Seventy years ago, Britain found itself in one of the strangest political situations in its history. On July 5, 1945, just weeks after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the nation had gone to the polls in the first general election for a decade.
But with so many British men still serving abroad, the results were not counted and declared for another three weeks. In the meantime, the country waited in a state of suspended anticipation.
And then at last, on July 26, the most extraordinary election result in our history became clear.
Uninspiring: Leadership countenders (from left to right) Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Jeremy Corbyn
Britain had turned its back on Winston Churchill, the indomitable lion who had led us to victory. Instead, the nation had turned to Clement Attlee's Labour Party, who swept into office with a landslide majority.
And for the next six years, Attlee and his colleagues laid many of the foundations of the Britain we know today, from the National Health Service and the welfare state to workers' rights, new towns and even national parks.
In today's Labour Party, Attlee's victory has taken on almost sacred status. But there could hardly be a more glaring contrast between the popularity and optimism of Labour in July 1945 and the shambolic, tragi-comical irrelevance of the party in July 2015.
Having sunk to a second successive defeat in May's general election, Labour now finds itself at a very low ebb indeed.
With polls this week suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn, a hard-Left Michael Foot tribute act, is poised to win the party's leadership race, Her Majesty's Opposition has descended into meltdown.
While Blairites attacked those MPs who nominated Mr Corbyn as 'morons', the Corbyn bandwagon rolled on, threatening to obliterate his party's chances at the next election.
Back from the dead came Tony Blair himself, declaring that if Labour's heart lay with Mr Corbyn, then it needed a transplant. Back from the dead, too, came the ludicrous figure of John Prescott, savaging his old boss for having the temerity to say what everyone else is thinking.
For Labour, the contest has become a dreadful embarrassment.
The three other contenders — Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall — are barely known outside Westminster, inspire little public enthusiasm and look positively dwarfish beside the titans of the past.
The party itself, meanwhile, appears limp and rudderless, devoid of ideas and content only to parrot the dictates of its union paymasters. It has already been as good as wiped off the map in Scotland, and some of its most astute MPs fear that without a dramatic revival, a similar fate awaits it in England, too.
Seventy years on, Labour MPs must shake their heads in envious disbelief when they look back to the summer of 1945. But the true lessons of history are rather more complicated than they think. After more than five years of war, Britain was exhausted, bomb-damaged, indebted — and victorious. Election meetings were held in great civic buildings that proudly wore the scars of war.
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Some young candidates, such as Labour's Major Denis Healey and Captain Roy Jenkins, even campaigned in uniform.
Y et contrary to all expectations, the electorate preferred Attlee's optimistic social reform to Churchill's conservatism. Almost 12 million people voted Labour in 1945, handing Attlee a whopping 393 parliamentary seats.
It is hardly surprising, then, that 1945 has gone down as a milestone in our political history. Indeed, for many on the Left, everything since has been a deep disappointment.
In the rose-tinted imagination of the Labour Party, 1945 has become a brief, shining episode of collective solidarity and socialist idealism, after which everything has been betrayal and decline.
This is nonsense. But it is immensely powerful nonsense, so potent that Labour's current nervous breakdown can, in my view, be traced to the party's complete misunderstanding of what happened in July 1945.
For the utopian idealists who huddle beneath Mr Corbyn's tattered red banners, the 1945 election is proof that, at heart, Britain is a Left-wing country craving old-fashioned socialism, high taxes and massive State ownership. In reality, almost no serious historian would endorse this interpretation.
Far from being swept up by socialist enthusiasm, most of the people who voted in the summer of 1945 were just as pragmatic as their 21st-century successors. Far from being suffused with Left-wing zeal, most people were largely bored by the election campaign, just as they were in May 2015.
Reporters spotted strikingly few party posters in people's windows; one even wrote that the election was proceeding under 'a cloak of apathy'.
In reality, when people voted for Attlee's Labour Party, they did so not because they were converts to socialism, but because they saw in him someone like themselves: modest, decent, pragmatic, suspicious of utopianism, a patriot to his fingertips.
Of course many were enthused by his party's programme — not least its promises to set up a National Health Service and a comprehensive system of social insurance, which has evolved into today's welfare state.
But this was a far cry from today's bloated welfare leviathan. When Attlee left office in 1951, we spent just £700 million a year on welfare (not including health and pensions), which amounted to 4.7 per cent of Britain's GDP. Yet in 2015 we are set to spend a whopping £110 billion a year, which works out at more than 6 per cent of GDP.
For Attlee, the welfare state was all about enabling people to stand on their own two feet. He once told an audience of high-minded Lefties that their 'best act would be to get off the backs of the poor' — not words you are likely to hear from today's Labour leadership contenders.
In many ways, in fact, Attlee's government was far more conservative than its devotees like to remember — which, of course, is precisely why so many ordinary people supported it.
Far from hurling money around with wild-eyed enthusiasm, as Jeremy Corbyn and his enthusiasts would love to do, Attlee's chancellors, Hugh Dalton and Stafford Cripps, kept spending under tight control.
This was the true Age of Austerity, with the government imposing even tighter rationing than during the war. Families were limited to just 4oz of bacon a week, 2oz of butter, and a shilling's worth of meat — just £1.60 in today's money.
Meanwhile, Cripps ensured that NHS and welfare spending never ballooned out of control, and kept consumer debt under strict limits so as to direct the nation's economic energies into manufacturing and exports.
In foreign affairs, too, the Attlee government compiled the kind of record that would make today's bleeding-hearted, anti-patriotic Left-wingers blench with horror.
It is true that Attlee dismantled British rule in India and what became Pakistan.
But given the surge of nationalism, the state of Britain's finances and the impossibility of maintaining the Raj by force, this merely represented an accommodation with reality — the kind of hard-headed pragmatism that has been all too absent from our foreign policy in recent years.
In other respects, however, Attlee was determined to maintain Britain's place at the top table. His Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, began life as the illegitimate son of a poor Somerset girl, left school at 11 and worked as a labourer before rising all the way to the Cabinet.
But Bevin, one of the greatest statesmen of the century, knew in his bones that Britain was a Great Power or it was nothing.
It was Bevin, having fought Communism in the trade unions in the Twenties and Thirties, who was the chief architect of the Nato alliance that kept the West secure during the Cold War. It was Bevin, too, who played the key role in the British nuclear programme.
'We've got to have this thing [a nuclear bomb] over here whatever it costs,' he told his colleagues, almost bursting with patriotic fervour. 'We've got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.'
I wonder whether such a stout-hearted patriot would find a place in today's Labour Party, where you are more likely to hear activists demanding the abandonment of our nuclear deterrent and delivering crawling apologies for Britain's imperial history.
J eremy Corbyn, naturally, wants to scrap our nuclear weapons. So if they are following the leadership election in paradise, I doubt Bevin will be rooting for the bearded Eighties throwback.
Indeed, there is a sublime irony in the fact that although Mr Corbyn's hard-Left admirers often go all misty-eyed at the thought of the 1945 election, even wearing T-shirts with the slogan 'What would Clement do?' — on sale, naturally, via The Guardian newspaper — they would be horrified by the opinions that Attlee and Bevin actually held.
Far from being a simpering seminar-room idealist, Attlee was in many ways a robustly conservative man, who only agreed to have a news-ticker machine installed in No 10 Downing Street after his aides pointed out that he would be able to follow the cricket scores.
Not only was Attlee devoted to his old public school, Haileybury, but he was a convinced monarchist who worked closely with George VI.
Former British Prime Minister Clement Attlee
Indeed, the journalist Anthony Howard once remarked that Attlee's victory, coming as it did after the chaos of World War II, marked 'the greatest restoration of traditional social values since 1660' — when Charles II restored the monarchy.
Of course, the Attlee government made its fair share of mistakes, not least in its deluded enthusiasm for nationalising great swathes of British industry. But millions of voters liked the combination of an unashamedly patriotic foreign policy, a genuine sense of social compassion and a keen eye for people's everyday interests, all anchored in Attlee's deeply felt, traditional moral values.
Had his successors learned the obvious lesson and followed Attlee's formula, then not only would the Labour Party be in a much better state now, it might have won an awful lot more elections in the intervening years.
Astonishingly, however, only two Labour leaders — Harold Wilson and Tony Blair — have matched Attlee's feat of taking the party from opposition into government.
Tellingly, both did so by downplaying Left-wing idealism and by reaching out to middle-class voters. And, equally tellingly, both were excoriated by their own activists as traitors and sell-outs.
To my mind, the party's biggest problem is that it has completely lost touch with the working-class voters who were so loyal to Attlee and Bevin. Left-wing activists themselves often like to blame Tony Blair; actually, the problem goes much deeper.
The rot set in during the Sixties and Seventies, when local Labour parties, once the province of ordinary factory workers, miners, dockers and dustmen, were overrun by a tide of middle-class do-gooders, idealists and pseudo-intellectuals.
Mr Corbyn himself, a former grammar school boy who became a trade union organiser, is absolutely typical of the breed.
One example tells a wider story. In 1977, the Labour PM Jim Callaghan's chief adviser, Bernard Donoughue, went to a meeting of his local Labour Party in St Pancras North in London and was appalled by the posturing nonsense he heard. 'What a bunch of w*****s!' he wrote in his diary afterwards. 'Not a serious working person there. All part-time polytechnic lecturers.'
Even at this early stage, the Labour Party had changed immeasurably since Attlee's day. And in the ensuing decades, its transformation into an unholy alliance of hard-Left trade unionists and high-minded university lecturers has continued apace. Today, its leaders seem not merely utterly divorced from the common man, but comically incapable of speaking a language that ordinary people understand.
Just think, for example, of the ludicrous figure of Ed Miliband — who employed, you guessed it, an Oxford don as his chief adviser — haplessly struggling to sound like a normal human being.
Or of his shadow minister, Emily Thornberry, who was forced to step down after sneering at a white van driver's house bedecked with English flags.
Attlee and Bevin would have been appalled at the idea of such people wielding power within their party. And I think they would have been horrified by the current Labour leadership race, which may well be the most irrelevant, uninspiring and intellectually barren contest ever held.
By comparison with the men who led the Labour Party in 1945, today's leadership contenders cut risibly diminished figures.
Of Andy Burnham, a cynical careerist, and Yvette Cooper, a robot, the less said the better. To his credit, Mr Corbyn at least has some ideas.
But if his supporters seriously think that ordinary people are going to vote to turn Britain into East Germany circa 1970, then I am afraid they are deluding themselves.
Perhaps most suggestively, the only candidate who seems to have any sense and perspective, Liz Kendall, is routinely abused by Left-wing activists as a traitor. That fact alone speaks volumes about how desperately far the Labour Party has fallen in recent years.
The losers are not so much Labour's politicians themselves, but the ordinary people they represent. Not only does working-class Britain need a vigorous, sane and pragmatic Labour Party, but our country desperately needs a confident and incisive Opposition.
If Labour's leadership contenders seriously want to revive their party's fortunes, they could start by learning the right lessons from history. They should learn from the real Attlee — not the caricature of their activists' adolescent fantasies.
The ideal Labour MP, Attlee once remarked, 'has to know his stuff; he mustn't talk too much; he must be good-tempered; not conceited; and be known to be a decent chap'.
That would make a perfect job description for the next Labour leader. But what are the chances of the party electing such a person? On this week's evidence: nil.
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